April 3, 2020
The coronavirus is particularly hard on elderly and infirm people. There are a lot of elderly and infirm people in prison.
Prison inmates age at an accelerated rate when compared to people living outside the prison walls. The health of a 50-year-old person in prison is comparable to the health of a 65-year-old. That is not a good thing - especially in the midst of a pandemic.
Compassionate release, sometimes called medical or geriatric parole, is a process that allows for the release of prisoners who are elderly or sick. Some form of compassionate release exists in 49 states, the District of Columbia and with the federal government.
Prison demographics have changed dramatically in the last several decades. According to The Pew Charitable Trust, in Virginia for instance, 822 state prisoners were age 50 and over in 1990, about 4.5% of all inmates. By 2019, that number had grown to more than 8,000, or 21% of all inmates.
The Boston Globe recently reported that prisons are “Petri dishes for disease in the best of times, but they could become incubators for COVID-19 now.”
In prison, social distancing is impossible. Inmates are elbow to elbow when eating, showering and engaging in recreational activity. Besides the “graying” of inmates, many suffer from diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, cancer and other conditions that, according to the Globe, make them more susceptible to COVID-19 which will likely result in intensive care, isolation and quite possibly death.
Compassionate release was created as a safety valve for elderly and infirm inmates. Unfortunately, even in the throes of a national health emergency, the release of ailing inmates has been anything but compassionate. As a result of the slow and cumbersome nature of the compassionate release process and its high denial rates, many infirm and terminally ill inmates die waiting on decisions - and many more will die as a result of COVID-19.
According to an investigation by The Marshall Project and the New York Times, from 2013 to 2017, the Federal Bureau of Prisons approved 6% of the 5,400 applications for compassionate release, while 266 inmates who applied died in custody awaiting a decision.
Congress created compassionate release as a way to release certain elderly and sick inmates when it becomes “inequitable” to keep them in prison any longer. Supporters viewed the program as a humanitarian measure and a sensible way to reduce health care costs by releasing inmates who pose little risk to public safety, reported the Times.
Last week, 14 United States Senators wrote to the Federal Bureau of Prisons seeking to ramp up the use of the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program which permits terminally ill and elderly inmates to serve a portion of their sentence on home confinement.
The governor of Kentucky has reduced the sentences of 186 inmates who have been screened based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and determined to be most susceptible to the COVID-19. The governor has signaled that there may be more to come. There are about 24,000 prisoners in Kentucky state prisons.
In California, where 10,500 inmates are age 60 or older, lawyers told a judicial panel overseeing prison conditions that 17,000 prisoners are a medically high risk. According to the Los Angeles
Times, lawyers argued that without immediate action, “COVID-19 will spread like wildfire in (the state’s) crowded prisons ... overwhelming hospital capacity and needlessly infecting thousands.”
This week California Governor Gavin Newsom stopped all new prison admissions, but said he had “no interest in ... releasing violent criminals from our system.”
Unfortunately, too many governors and lawmakers share Newsom’s sentiments, even if those elderly and unhealthy inmates have about zero chance of reoffending. A lengthy sentence, even a life sentence, should not be turned into a death sentence.
Compassionate release can save lives and is morally the right thing to do. Terminally ill, handicapped and infirm inmates are generally not a threat to society and are susceptible to the wrath of this terrible virus. The early release of at-risk inmates can help flatten the curve and save the lives of other inmates and prison staff.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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